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(Re)Designing My Career
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The pandemic and the long-spoken conditions of architects in India really slapped me right in my face. Even with an incredible work portfolio and years of experience, multiple attempts at carving out my architectural career were in vain.

Hiring Manager: Hey! Are you an architect?

Me: Yes, I am.

Hiring Manager: Great! We are looking for a solutions architect for our IT company.

Me: Uhhhh, no. I am an “Architect” who builds spaces, environments.

Hiring Manager: Sorry, my bad! 

You have no idea how many times this happened to me when I moved back to India in 2021. And when the call was about my kind of “architect”, the pay they offered was way too less – it felt mortifying.

The pandemic and of course the long-spoken conditions of architects in India really slapped me right in my face. Even with an incredible work portfolio and years of experience, multiple attempts at carving out my architectural career were in vain. I was left with no other choice but to move on and rebuild my career in something else.

My peers were already at a good place in their careers and personal lives. I was clueless when a friend of mine introduced me to the world of product design. When I said those two are entirely two different spaces, he asked, “What do architects do?” I replied, “These are individuals who design and guide a plan or undertaking.” What he said after that was a true epiphany moment for me- “That’s what you will inherently do as a designer in any space. Think of the design principles and processes you have been following, but now you have to apply it in another space where the end goal is to deliver a digital product instead of a building.”

They say it right - what goes around comes around. While 15-year-old me was pretty good with CS programming, finding coding logics and yet I chose a creative career where I would have the privilege to learn and design new things every day. Little did I know that I would be back in the very same space 15 years later!

A sneak peek into my past life

My role as an architect was complex but a very fulfilling one. I would interact with clients, understand their needs, create solutions that add business value, work around financial constraints while not compromising on sentimental values. I had to take on multiple roles - a negotiator, a researcher, a sales executive, a technician, an engineer, an environmentalist, a designer, a facilitator in order to bring paper designs to life. As an architect, one is tuned to creating user centric spaces which inculcates a seventh sense in us that is geared towards user comfort.

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A designer is not someone who just makes pretty drawings. Portraying multiple roles helped me understand the various aspects and aspirations of stakeholders. You must be empathetic to all the members that contribute to your design. Years of practice trains you to work with multiple segments and develop a macro vision of the project. Our brains are trained over time to easily switch between scenarios. One day I could be designing a high-end hospitality project and the next day I could be working on a budget villa.

Did my previous experience hold any good in the field of Product design?

As a practicing architect, I had the opportunity to work on some of the most unusual design projects like designing an equestrian school, a winery, a luxury senior living hospitality development, an entire cultural city, and what not. In architecture, it is essential to understand your clients or users, their behavioral patterns, design for different environments, multiple functionalities and the most challenging being designing for varied anthropology. Let’s not forget the number of times you could scrap your design and start over again.

Similarly, as a product designer one could be working for a liquor company, tomorrow you could land an opportunity in a fintech company. Product designers are expected to constantly learn, take feedback constructively and tune the radio stations of their working brains to the current problem. Here, in product design, constant iteration is the key to our profession. Change is evident and one needs to keep working till their product caters to user needs, contributes to digital transformation, and offers the smoothest experience to a customer.

Psychology being the essence of design in both fields.

In architecture, a user is influenced by the physical or built environment. A space can influence the mood, health, and behavior and sometimes motivate the user to act based on the intent of the aesthetics. Architectural psychology is the study of human interaction with their built environment and as architects we strive to provide the best experience required by a user or a set of users.

In digital product design, psychology branches out to human factors or specifically put “The study of human computer interactions”. As a product designer, it's essential to understand human behavior, their cognitive and perception skills in different scenarios. This information helps designers create and establish user friendly experiences.

In architecture, a lot of these behaviors usually remain the same as the design is based upon the anthropometrics (measurement of the human individual) and cultural references of the user and once built you can rarely make drastic changes. Whereas digital interactions can change based on the product and platform being used. Digital experiences are often based on real human tendencies to search and interact with information but still have scope for introducing new behaviors.

Struggles with ground field reality...

Both architecture and product design involve interacting with a huge set of stakeholders, spending long hours in research, working with critical feedback. Yet with so many similarities making the switch was arduous.

I had to unlearn a lot of notions, user biases and even forget standards of practice. There was a lot of new jargon, laws of digital interaction design, software tools, research methodologies, working systems that had to be learnt in a short span of time. Working with a new typology of stakeholders was another test posed before me. Understanding the profiles and personas of people who are key stakeholders, their working methodologies, timelines, and delivering value as expected was challenging.

Another factor which I believe is significant in any technical design field is understanding the business value and cash flow through the entire system. I would say I am still picking it up, but I think this vision is not necessarily shared with a product designer unlike architects where we are expected to work towards delivering value through the entire journey of creating the built environment.

How working methodologies in my architectural and project management experience helped me with product design?

Architects are famous for working with lines and sketches that usually make sense only to them, but what we are doing is envisioning the design like a hologram in our head and translating multiple ideas onto paper. Every requirement, constraint from all the stakeholders is already marked in the base drawings, and we keep sketching until we have a solution that adheres to all the needs and wants of the design.

Architects are famous for working with lines and sketches that usually make sense only to them, but what we are doing is envisioning the design like a hologram in our head and translating multiple ideas onto paper. Every requirement, constraint from all the stakeholders is already marked in the base drawings, and we keep sketching until we have a solution that adheres to all the needs and wants of the design.

Similarly, in product design one is working with large amounts of user data, mostly relating to their behavioral aspects and expectations from a digital product. We work with multiple scenarios, user flows, information logic and putting these thoughts down on paper or a digital medium like drawing those architectural concepts helps us with curating good products and creating delightful user experiences.

Additionally, having some years of experience of project management helped me to understand the ground realities of execution, identifying pitfalls, and understanding the concept of money vs time. It helped me develop a realistic approach to creating design without compromising on the vision of the client. It disciplined the flow of work by delivering value in all verticals of architectural design and still making enough room for creativity to shine.

This same practice taught me to dig deep into the product’s vision to understand why or who we were designing for, whether all the stakeholders were aware of the vision and working towards the same set of goals. The general practice for designers, especially in agile work environments, is to merely follow the instructions from product owners and managers and deliver the current ask. I’ve realized that this does not hold good especially if the leaders of the company are serious about creating meaningful and user-friendly digital products. Inculcating the same vision in the entire matrix encourages the team to design and work smartly by pushing them beyond their usual creative limits to crack solutions.

My mountain dew moments

Starting something new can spark excitement or fear in any individual and I had equal amounts of both. I had a lot of self-imposed pressure needles like finding the right place to work, achieving excellence, and learning everything that I could, to make me a successful product designer and this approach clearly did not do any good. I was overwhelmed by the need to try and succeed at everything.

Thanks to my folks and friends who helped me boost my confidence and I managed to bag my first opportunity with a leading Pharma company followed by my first opportunity in the IT industry.

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Building my career all over again had me worrying about the What ifs! What if I don’t succeed, what if I am not accepted, what if I am not heard? Introspecting made me realize that even if I did not have experience in this field, I did have a lot of learning from my previous workspace. Sometimes you end up forgetting what you are capable of and what you have achieved. I realized I had a lot to offer, my skills were easily transferrable, and I just had to gather the courage to make mistakes, to fail and fall as many times as possible it would take to rebuild myself. I truly believe in these words.

”Don’t be afraid to start over. This time you are not starting from scratch, you are starting from experience."

You must believe in yourself and if you can’t do that, then simply make a list of your past achievements no matter how easy or tough they were. Celebrate yourself and you will automatically be booming with confidence that will encourage you to take on anything in this whole wide world.

My words of wisdom for people looking to switch.

Life will never happen as you planned. It is important to have a roadmap defined but who and what comes along in your journey is a mystery. It’s like a game where sometimes you might lose points, you could gain bonuses and sometimes even a new life. Switching careers is no joke but it’s not impossible. It requires a lot of patience, perseverance, and hard work.

Before you take such a decision, be very clear why you are doing so. Have an idea of what you are looking to achieve through this change and then once you have made that decision, don’t turn back no matter what. You must be sure that you enjoy the kind of work you are doing or else you won’t have the zeal to learn anything. Create a visual or concept in your head of the kind of place you want to work, look for an environment that supports growth, has enthusiastic people and work that would interest you.

Be open to opportunities and research, read everything about the workplace. There are many professionals on social media platforms, converse with them and reach out to individuals who work at similar places and positions, understand their way of working, their expectations from people etc. All these steps will set you apart and help you get ready.

Remember the lines? “What would Harvey Do”

Nobody becomes admirable overnight. People put in a lot of effort even though it might be invisible. Many said that I am lucky, but they only see the tip of the iceberg. If that were true, then I earned my luck. I am grateful for the opportunities and people I have met so far in my professional life, and I thank my younger self for not settling for less.

Whenever you make it to the other side, don’t settle and be satisfied that you made it this far. Make sure you have a fire in your belly. Make the best of everything being offered to you, look for opportunities to learn and get better at each attempt. Good leaders and companies are always looking for people who have an open mind and a growth mindset. Aim for that on the dartboards of your life. 

Now that you have reached the end of this anecdote, I’m hoping that sharing a small snippet of my professional journey has inspired some of you. Well, this is not the conclusion of my story but the beginning of a new chapter in my life.

Looking forward to finding out my actual learnings and the roadmap that led me here? Wait up for my next feature.

Also, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

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